Roads Less Traveled

Roads Less Traveled

Although I enjoy celebrating how far we have come, it does a disservice to those for whom we care so much not to occasionally bring attention to how far we have yet to go.

Problems learning how to read are said to be the reason for 80 to 90% of children being found eligible for special education due to a learning disability. Is this because many schools see learning to read and learning disabilities as the same problem, because learning disabilities is not adequately defined, or because other forms of learning disability go unrecognized and untreated? Of course, it could be that reading problems actually do account for 80 to 90% of learning disabilities, but I don’t believe that to be the case. In my experience children with the following weaknesses or deficits are not adequately identified, understood, or helped:

 · Executive/metacognitive skills such as setting goals, initiating, monitoring behavior, organizing,planning, anticipating, and adapting

· Social communication skills

· Adaptive functioning in predictably challenging environments, such as adopted status and socioeconomic disadvantage

Children who are clearly and predictably at risk for failure socially, emotionally, vocationally, or academically are not identified or helped until they actually experience significant failure and injury to their motivation and self-image. And, the vast majority of children identified as needing remediation are denied appropriate intervention due to a lack of effective methodology, trained instructors, and/or meaningful intensity and duration of instruction.

Dedicated researchers and skilled practitioners have allowed us a glimpse of the promise land, but like the explorers of old, they provide stories of wealth and prosperity while the vast majority of us can only dream of the riches they have discovered.  The proverbial bridge from research to practice only exists when we make available to everyone that which research has identified as effective. Research identifies the cause, practice develops the solution. Without knowing the cause the effective assistance is elusive and inefficient.

The powerful engines of our educational system idle while children fail to develop social, metacognitive, math, emotional, and other adaptive skills. We need to know what learning disabilities are. We need to respond when a risk to the development of an adaptive function (a skill required by the culture in which we live) is first apparent. The skill to communicate, organize, calculate, and deal with stress, as well as the ability to read, are critical to a child, in this culture, to becoming a successful adult.The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) focuses on reading problems and the specific form of learning disability known as dyslexia. Science has built a firm foundation upon which we can anchor the bridge we are struggling to build from research to practice. However, when it comes to understanding children with learning disabilities, if there is one problem, there is likely to be a second or a third. If we don’t identify, understand, and treat all the problems faced by a child with a learning disability, we risk fixing the roof and watching the house collapse.  What can IDA do?

Work with other sister organizations. ·   Develop a scientific consensus for the definition of learning disabilities. ·  Support responsive instruction. ·   Abandon aptitude/achievement formulas to determine eligibility for services. · Empower educational professionals to use their hard earned clinical judgment to identify students at risk.

We must begin to work together to prevent problems before they mature to the point where they rob potential, alter lives, and become an economic burden.

The other day an attorney complained to me that the school district he represents can’t afford another penny, much less the $80,000 cost of a residential treatment center for an emotionally disturbed student (who although having a long history of signs that he was at risk is now in high school without ever having received the help he needed). I have sympathy for the district and the taxpayer, but the problem is not the cost of current treatment; it is the failure to identify, understand, and help when prevention was possible. A wise old saying is “A stitch in time saves nine.” School district administrators complain when they have to find the resources to do nine stitches because they didn’t take the time or face the need to do the single stitch when it would have mattered.

This is not a human problem, but a systemic issue. The unexpected consequence of attempts to standardize educational practices has been to handcuff our educators, stifle creativity, create conflict and competition between general education and special education, and deny our children access to meaningful early intervention. If the system is indeed “broken,” as seems to be the political consensus, then the injury is self inflicted. In this case top down problems needbottom up solutions. We must reject that which is ineffective and immoral and we must demand the knowledge, training, and freedom to be effective.  The “we” of whom I speak is parent, advocate, teacher, principal, and everyone who is in the position to see, touch, and influence the life of a child.

IDA provides a place for us all to work together, find solutions, spread the word, and build the bridge from research to practice so that all children can realize their potential. I am proud to be a member of IDA.

Source: Dickman, G.E., (2008). Roads Less Traveled. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 34, 4 at p. 5

G. Emerson Dickman, President